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A pivotal image in Jewish tradition is that of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger in the dark of night. When dawn breaks, permanently crippled, he insists on a blessing, and receives a new name: Israel, he who wrestles with God. That wrestling in the dark – with the hope of a distant dawn – is emblematic of what it means to be a Jew. We wrestle with what it means to be in a relationship with the Divine, we are often surprised and unsure of what we face in the dark, we do not know all the implications of our struggles, whether they will end in blessing – or injury – or both. We are both trapped in this wrestling and yet blessed by this struggle.
And so it is for me, with respect to the questions raised by the case of Adat Shalom and David Kaye. It is a struggle to untangle all my thoughts and feelings, so much of which comes from the dark nights of the soul I myself have experienced over my life. I write as a survivor of chronic incestuous child sexual abuse from the ages of 10-12, the deep scars of which still affect me, 40 years later, in a myriad of ways, despite therapy and psychopharmaceutical intervention.
I also write as a Jewish day school educator for more than 30 years, who has attempted to teach and model core Jewish values of repentance, forgiveness and the possibility of human redemption. This question strikes at the core of these two equally important and equally legitimate sides of who I am – balanced precariously between my experiences and my beliefs, between the world as it is and the world as it should be, between the rights of the individual and the security of the community, between emotion and law, condemned as we all are to wrestle with the question of the nature of what is godly, as our forefather Jacob did.
And so, though I wish for an overall surety of what I think is right, the security and righteousness of indignation, I fail. I can only hope that despite my failure at a final overall clarity, my speaking as one survivor among tens of millions in this world – might be of some value to others.
That being said, there are for me, within this painful and difficult overarching question, some things which are clear.
First, when I learned of this, I immediately imagined what it would be for me, as a survivor, to pray in a place with someone who had molested me – or even someone I was sure molested anyone. It is impossible. I could not pray. I do not think I could even stay in the same place. As it is, I fear my father’s funeral precisely because I will probably encounter my perpetrator there, the kind of encounter I have carefully engineered to avoid for a quarter of a century. No one knows dread so acutely as a survivor confronted with the possibility of beholding the abuser, even decades later. The congregation has a right to know that this person will be there: if any of them were his victims, or are still working through some other abuse, they should not be confronted with him unexpectedly.
Secondly, and more importantly than my own feelings, is the reality that we as a society have not figured out, with any appreciable degree of success, how to treat pedophilia. The recidivism rate of child molesters is the highest of all crimes. Because of this, I am absolutely sure that dealing with any molester – irrespective of psychiatric care, punishment, pleas of mercy, passage of time – any molester – is akin to walking through the proverbial minefield. No child is ever safe around such a person. Period. Judaism teaches us that there is no higher value than saving a life: and I believe that child sexual abuse is but one step shy of murder; and thus having him even in the vicinity of a child is putting a life at risk. In fact, one of my first reactions was this: would there even be a question of whether to admit to the congregation a serial murderer? Although we do not know whether Kaye had other (“actual”) victims (victims whom he was able to entrap), we know that he had the interest and the proclivity for such a heinous act – and that almost no molesters have “only” one victim. He must never, never, ever be alone with a child or young person for even one minute for any reason.
Two other reactions: on the one hand, the congregation’s supposed value of inclusivity, and on the other, Kaye’s claim that he had been forgiven by God.
To argue that he should be accepted because of inclusivity or diversity is to make the ultimate mockery of those otherwise commendable goals. Inclusivity and diversity in a synagogue should be about the extent one reaches out to the intermarried, how welcoming one is of gay and lesbian Jews, how one embraces Jews who are converts, who are racial minorities, etc. But to be inclusive of criminals of the most reprehensible kind? It is absurd (one can imagine the instructions to the children – see, we have different kinds of Jews at our shul – this family has a Christmas tree; this child has two moms; this person is a rapist?!? Would anyone seriously argue that the synagogue should be welcoming to neo-Nazis to buttress their pride in diversity?)
To rely on his claim that he has done t’shuvah and that God has forgiven him is equally dubious. Are we to imagine that any human being, particularly an avowed criminal, is such a reliable reporter of what God’s will is that one should risk the safety of one’s children in this matter? Moreover, it is not the forgiveness of God that should be Kaye’s only concern. In Jewish tradition we learn that forgiveness must be granted first and foremost from the one who has suffered the transgression: it is not our place as on-lookers to accept a vicarious apology (not that it seemed he even proffered one); it is, arguably, not even God’s place to do so.
So those are the things I am sure about. If I could honestly stop there, if those were the only aspects worth considering, I could pride myself in my decisiveness.
And yet. And yet. In Judaism, there is almost always a “and yet.”
He wants to pray. He seems repentant. He is not asking for special honors. He could be escorted at all times around the building. Could the service be Skyped in so that he could daven virtually? Was he a sinner, or mentally ill? Is he one of the few who is able to turn his life around – and as doubtful as that may be, should we not do everything we can to enable his healing, however unlikely, as long as we take every possible precaution not to endanger ourselves and our children? As much as I want to be firm in my gut reaction that we should forever ostracize such a person, there is the “still small voice” that pleads inside me to consider the power of penitence. If I eschew even the smallest mercies – a seat at the back of the shul, under the supervision of a constant chaperone – am I really advocating this stance based on reasoned consideration, or on some vicarious revenge against my own perpetrator, who (unlike Kaye) has not been punished in the least?
And so I wrestle with the very real demons of my past, and the past of so many others – and with the possibility of an elusive promise in the future. How do I bear witness for that terrified young girl I was – without trapping myself in the past, and thus forfeiting a part of my soul? How should we balance justice and mercy in these kinds of cases? What is the cost of righteousness?
In the end, I continue to wrestle with these kinds of questions, struggling with the most mysterious stranger of all – myself – in darkness, alone on a mountain, crippled, hoping for the dawn.
Leslie Smith Rosen is principal of the Shoshana S. Cardin School in Baltimore.